Firm develops new mask to guard against disease

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 March, 2009, 12:00am

A Hong Kong company has developed a new surgical mask, which it claims can kill germs while being comfortable to wear all day.

But experts say more research should be done on how well the masks perform in protecting against flu and other diseases, especially as stockpiling of masks is part of pandemic preparedness in Hong Kong.

The BioMask, made by Sheung Wan-based Filligent Ltd, has an active chemical material that binds to viruses and bacteria, killing them.

The germs target sialic acid receptors - a kind of molecule - outside human cells and Hong Kong scientists applied this chemical mechanism to make a mask with 'intelligent filtration'.

Benjamin Cowling, an assistant professor of community medicine at University of Hong Kong, said the new mask was 'an exciting idea'.

But he added: 'There should be more research on how well these masks perform against transmission of lots of different diseases, whether compared to other surgical masks or compared to not wearing masks.'

Dr Cowling saw the mask when it was launched at last week's virology conference in Hong Kong.

A study by an Australian team, the results of which were revealed at the same conference, found masks made little difference in the spread of flu-like illnesses in households.

'Household use of masks is associated with low adherence and is ineffective in controlling seasonal respiratory diseases,' the study of 286 exposed adults in 143 households found.

Dr Cowling said wearing masks would help at the start of a pandemic, when vaccines and antivirals would be limited to those countries that could manufacture or afford to buy them.

'I also find it relevant for regular year-to-year influenza if we find these interventions can really prevent transmissions,' he said.

Paul Chan Kay-sheung, a flu virologist and professor at Chinese University, said the jury was still out on whether surgical masks reduced the spread of flu.

'Most data currently suggest surgical masks are not effective when used in the general population. But N95 masks have been found to be effective in hospital settings,' he said.

The N95 is the mask recommended for infection prevention by the World Health Organisation and the US Centres for Disease Control.

'There is a need to develop new masks because current masks, like the N95, are not comfortable at all. If you want good compliance with wearing masks, there should be further development of the masks,' Professor Chan said.

He said it would be interesting to see whether the use of advanced technology in surgical masks would improve safety and compliance.

Melissa Mowbray-D'Arbela, the chairwoman and founder of Filligent, said the company's mask was more cost-effective.

'The beauty of this is you don't need to replace it. Because it is self-sanitising, you can wear it the whole day,' she said. 'With N95 you have to replace it about 6-8 times a day.'

Ralf Altmeyer, a virologist and senior consultant for infectious diseases at Filligent, said: 'The current masks work with mechanical filtration so the filter needs to be very tight in order to filter well. The tighter the filter is, the more difficult it is to breathe and the hotter it gets, and the wearer can't wear it for a long time.'

The BioMask gained certification from the European Community on February 13 and is awaiting US Food and Drug Administration approval.